David Dunn-Rankin

Perhaps you look at the political wrangling in Washington, D.C., during the worst health care crisis in 100 years – and you wonder what has become of our great country.  

Our country has a history of political wrangling. What gives me hope is we’ve not only survived our bungling politicians, but thrived in spite of them.  

In 1829, an Englishman died and left his estate to the United States of America.  This Englishman had never been to our country and had no real connection to us.     

As our readers remember, 1829 was only a few years removed from our war of 1812 with England. And just 50 years removed from the American Revolution, which overthrew the English monarchy’s control of America. A random gift from a British stranger.

How big a sum of money was this large gift from a foreigner? It was equal to 1.5% of the U.S. budget. That is the equivalent of $7.5 billion today. 

The Englishman’s will required that America use the money for the creation of an “establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.”

Do you believe that era’s enlightened political servants in Washington, D.C., worked together, collegially, to fulfill the wishes of the Englishman’s special gift? Or perhaps today’s Washington, D.C., is not that different from the 1830s. Of course, a political food fight erupted over this magnificent sum of money.

First, our politicians had quite the brouhaha over whether to even accept money from a foreigner. An alien.   

Sen. John C. Calhoun of South Carolina said reject the $7.5 billion gift. It was “beneath the dignity of the U.S. to accept presents from anyone.”

Not to be outdone, his fellow senator from South Carolina, William Campbell Preston, objected because “Every whippersnapper vagabond … might think it proper to have his name distinguished the same way.” 

Why should our new nation, the independent and free United States of America, want to support and encourage a rich foreigner’s bid for immortality, by having his name on an American institution?  

What if a Saudi prince made the same offer today?

President Andrew Jackson was concerned about his southern political base who, based on national pride and states’ rights, strongly rejected the idea of accepting the gift. Old Hickory, the war hero of New Orleans, ducked for political cover.  Jackson would not accept the gift – unless Congress passed a resolution approving it.

The political ugliness and angry rhetoric over this beautiful gift from a man who had never been to this country continued for 11 years before a final resolution.  During those contentious 11 years, rejecting the gift outright or alternative suggestions for spending the money was often a plank in a political platform of politicians running for higher office.

Congress appointed former President John Quincy Adams to head the committee to resolve the ugly dispute over what to do with the money. 

Some suggested a botanical garden. Some suggested a library. Some suggested an astronomical observatory (John Quincy Adams’ favorite). Some suggested it be given to the colleges and universities in each state.  

Finally, under Adams’ patient leadership, 11 years after the gift, the issue was resolved. We decided on the perfect use of this gift.

The next time you are in Washington, D.C., you’ll probably look at some of our buildings, national treasures, and remember to thank a foreigner, James Smithsonian, for his generous gift to a former enemy in war – our new country, America.

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